“It’s one of the groups that has the most competition.”
That was Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone’s takeaway on his wide receiver room following Saturday’s scrimmage. From top to bottom, from veterans to Pro-Bowlers to standout rookies, the wide receiver unit has fielded the most competitive battles
Continued Marrone, "when you look at it as far as playing time or dressing on Sunday or the final number of the 53; that position has done a nice job and the one good thing they do is they play multiple spots.”
The unit is unquestionably led by DJ Chark. Now in his third year, the Pro-Bowler is coming off a 1,000+ yard season with the potential to top it this year. If he post back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, he will be the first Jag since Jimmy Smith to accomplish the feat.
“He’s a different cat,” said Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden of Chark.
“He can attack defenses a lot of different ways and a lot of different positions, which is good. He’s got a great knowledge of the offense, he can play outside, obviously. We’re moving him around a little bit so he’s doing good inside.
“He’s just a good all-around player, but he’s also excellent to coach because he knows he has work to do and he wants to be great. It’s one thing being a talented player with speed and size and have great hands, but it’s another to want to come out early and work hard and really dominate the offense from a mental standpoint.”
Fourth-year Keelan Cole is only a step behind and Marrone says the receiver and special teams contributor has shown vast improvement from last year to now. If it’s anything close to the progress he made from the first half of the 2019 season to the back half, it should be substantial. During the first eight games of last season, Cole brought in three receptions for 33 yards. The latter eight games? He hauled in 20 receptions for 328 yards.
“Cole, he plays multiple spots and he has had a really good camp,” explains Marrone, continuing, “he’s got really good hands, can play all three positions, he makes the tough catch, he’s been very consistent, he’s become better at this route running, he’s been able to get in and out a little better, so you see an improvement from last year to this year.”
The elder statesmen in the room though is clearly Chris Conley. A sixth-year veteran, position coach Keenan McCardell is using Conley to guide this relatively young albeit talented unit.
“I expect him to lead the younger guys, show them how to be pros, but continue to be Chris. I think Chris had his best year of his career last year and I want him to continue to grow on that year. And I think coming out to practice and showing guys how a professional does it is really big for the young guys.
“And I tell the two young guys to take a peek at him, watch how he practices. He doesn’t take anything for granted and he understands, I mean, it’s a competition here and everybody in that room understands the competition. So, I expect him to step up and be a guy that’s going to help us this year.”
The two young guys McCardell mentioned are drafted rookies Laviska Shenault and Collin Johnson. Shenault was taken by the Jags in the second round, No. 40 overall and called one of the bigger steals of the draft by some pundits. Johnson has captivated the attention of coaches and teammates in camp thus far, meaning both parts of the rookie duo are pushing for permanent spots on the 53-man roster, creating the competition that Marrone mentioned.
Shenault has the ability and has played all three receiver spots in college and in camp. His greatest trait though, according to McCardell, is his pure power.
“I see a lot of power—strong runner after the catch. You know, he reminds me a little bit of [former NFL Pro-Bowl receiver] Anquan Boldin after the catch, the way he gets in and out, the way he breaks his tackles, on film I saw that. Now, being up close with him, he has that power of Andre Johnson. You know, I hold Andre in high regards, that’s my guy, we’re good friends. But I’ve also seen him [Shenault] work every day. I see the power that he has.”
Shenault was held out of Saturday’s scrimmage while nursing an injury but Marrone said if it had been a real game, he could have gone.
And when it comes to Johnson—the only player to talk to media after the scrimmage—he was a bit of a hodgepodge of qualities that made Marrone and staff want the former Texas Longhorn on the roster.
“I knew I wanted to get a different type of variety in that I wanted a big, strong receiver. I want a quick receiver, I want someone with speed, I want someone with strong hands…so when I was looking at the receivers and going down the list highlighting the guys that had the height, weight, and speed, Collin was one of those guys.”
Pure numbers mean it's unlikely all 10 receivers currently in the unit make it on to the 53-man roster (the cut of which is coming this weekend). Other receivers who are looking to make the team are fourth-year veteran Dede Westbrook, who has been out for a good chunk of camp with a shoulder injury, second-year receiver Terry Godwin and undrafted rookie free agent Josh Hammond.
But Johnson says the time they’ve had together has been crucial to helping whoever it is that claws their way out of this position battle.
“We’re very tight and I applaud the older guys for taking the younger guys in. They took us in with open arms and really helped us and guided us through the whole process of training camp. Its been kind of a crazy year with the pandemic and no rookie minicamp so everything is looking a little different this year but the leadership of the older guys, I really appreciate.”
No matter who makes it out of the most competitive unit this training camp, quarterback Gardner Minshew II feels the Jacksonville Jaguars are set for success with this wide receiver unit.
“It’s even better than I expected. And I was expecting really good things. Each of these guys have come in, learned the offense and [have] really integrated themselves with the team. And each of them brings different things to the table. So, I think we’ve got kind of a wide array of tools and different skill sets in those rooms.”